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School District disputes low FCAT scores

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— Students’ scores on this year’s writing portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test were well below expectations, Pinellas County school officials said.

The scores were so bad the district informally has asked the Florida Department of Education to investigate.

If the department won’t look into the accuracy of the test, the school district plans to pore over students’ answers on its own once they are returned from the state next week.

The percentage of students who passed the fourth-grade writing FCAT decreased by 9 percentage points in Pinellas this school year, from 60 percent in 2013 to 51 percent. In eighth grade, 55 percent passed the test, a 1 percentage point increase from last year, but the number of 10th-grade students who passed decreased by 6 percentage points, to 61 percent.

All but two of the school district’s elementary schools that consistently earn A grades from the state posted increases in the number of passing students on last year’s writing exam. This year, all but three saw sharp declines in the number of passing students. At 10 of those schools, the percentage of passing students dropped by double digits.

However, the dip in some school districts’ scores have a much simpler explanation, said Florida Department of Education spokesman Joe Follick — this year’s prompt was harder.

“These results were down in several of our counties, but the most important thing to remember is the prompt this year required a deeper level of critical thinking,” Follick said.

Last school year, only 10th-grade students were expected to write the more difficult and informative expository essays, while fourth-grade students wrote narrative essays and eighth-grade students wrote persuasive essays.

On this year’s test, all students wrote expository essays to mirror the more rigorous expectations students will face under the Florida Standards next school year, education standards modeled after the Common Core State Standards, which will be adopted in 45 states and the District of Columbia.

The DOE extensively checked the tests and found no errors or grading discrepancies, Follick said.

It would be easier to argue for another investigation if all other school districts had similar results, but neighboring Hillsborough County saw the number of passing fourth-grade students increase by 5 percentage points, to 70 percent.

The number of eighth-grade students who passed the test increased by 2 percentage points, to 68 percent, in Hillsborough, and the number of 10th graders who passed decreased by 1 percentage point, to 66 percent.

“If there were widespread problems, I doubt we would see such a disparity in these two districts, as well as others that made huge gains,” Follick said.

Pinellas is not alone in its low scores. In Pasco County, passing fourth-grade students decreased by 15 percentage points, from 53 percent to 38 percent, and passing 10th-grade students decreased 3 percentage points, to 60 percent.

The percentage of eighth-grade students who passed stayed the same. Of all school districts in Florida, 43 saw decreases in the number of fourth-grade students who passed the exam, 21 saw decreases on the eighth-grade test and 17 saw decreases on the 10th-grade test.

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